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Film review: Woody Allen's Irrational Man fleshes out a moral dilemma

Allen's "perfect murder" plot morphs into existential comedy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 September, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 September, 2015, 4:00pm

Many a filmmaker purporting to weave a “perfect murder” plot walks a thin line between meticulous posturising and misguided self-importance. A regular patron of this absurd quandary, Woody Allen’s latest venture into the terrain – after Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream – isn’t going to put him anywhere near the pedestal occupied by Hitchcock and Chabrol.

Clumsy in parts and insubstantial as a whole, Irrational Man could however be seen as a different kind of triumph for its veteran writer-director. By juxtaposing the preposterous planning of a perfect crime with the fruitless search for meaning in the randomness of life, Allen’s suspenseful movie is so cynically narrated, it soon morphs into an existential comedy of an improbably high order.

The tortured soul here is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic and marginally potbellied professor who carries his depressed mind with him when he leaves behind a life of activism to teach in a liberal-arts college in Rhode Island. And although a character remarks that Abe’s presence “should put some Viagra into the philosophy department”, the irony is that he is, at least temporarily, impotent.

As he does his best to fend off two women – his romantic colleague Rita Richards (Parker Posey) and eager undergrad student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) – who appear all too ready to ditch their respective partners to run away with him, Abe stumbles across an unusual way to rejuvenate himself: after overhearing a conversation about the injustice caused by a biased judge, Abe decides to take drastic measures.

This irrational man’s subsequent actions are so comically outrageous they could prove off-putting to more logically minded viewers. Presenting a Dostoyevskian story of moral irresponsibility that nonetheless sees its criminal protagonist try hard to escape punishment, Allen’s film is relentless in squeezing out every last drop of irony he could, climaxing with one character walking literally into the void.

While no more rational than their man, the two sexed-up non-muses played by Stone and Posey are worthy sparring partners for Abe, compellingly embodied by Phoenix as the thinker who inadvertently spins a farce by living out his existentialist hypothesis. At age 79, Allen is surely misanthropic enough to shrug at both the godless universe and the philosophers who tried to make it liveable.

Irrational Man opens on September 24